The Othering of Persons with Severe Cognitive Disabilities in Alexis Kagame’s Conceptualization of Personhood

  • Nompumelelo Zinhle ManziniEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


Alexis Kagame’s “shadow thesis” is one of the most prominent theories of personhood in African Philosophy. Kagame offers us insight into what makes a person a person. Pinnacle to Kagame’s thesis is the idea that to be considered a person, one must have “intelligence” and the ability to put reason to good use. In this chapter, I argue that Kagame’s minimalist requirement for personhood is ableist in so far as it presents itself as exclusionary to people living with severe cognitive disabilities from the status of personhood. I contend that the justification for the ill-treatment of people with disabilities is premised on the notion that they are excluded from the category of personhood as identified in any theory of personhood that wants to make rationality a minimal requirement for personhood. The conclusions reached in the paper gesture toward the view that any theory of personhood that exemplifies itself as ableist should be rejected for further philosophical study and consideration.


Personhood Shadow Thesis Alexis Kagame Severe cognitive disabilities 

when aunty so-and-so

runs wild at the cemetery

do not say

your aunty is a madhouse

(Putuma 2017: 69)

African philosophy as a branch of philosophy has yet to write about those who are not regarded as able-bodied or those who do not conform to able-bodiedness. Considered from other perspective, African philosophy has been much resource for understanding African ontology, but the categorizations that were used by scholars like Father Placide Tempels (1959), Alexis Kagame (1989), and Ifeanyi Menkiti (1984) have not been thoroughly engaged with. Loosely speaking there has been a clear articulation of what it means to be a person, yet the very distinctions that have been used present themselves as ableist. One wonders why scholars of African philosophy have not interrogated these distinctions.

I begin this chapter by critically examining Kagame’s theorization of personhood and indicate the ways in which his conceptualization of personhood would deny those with severe cognitive disabilities of personhood. (This chapter originally appears in my master’s dissertation entitled “African conceptions of personhood as gendered, ableist and anti-queer” (Manzini 2017). My critique is opened up to Tempels (1959) force thesis and Menkiti’s (1984) normative communitarian conception of personhood.) The chapter then considers the argument that ableism is not African. Toward that end, I am especially interested in the claims that theories like Kagame’s do not inform the ableist behavior/killings that occur, respectively, in our communities, with the Life Esidimeni tragedy being an example. By the end of the chapter, I defend the view that exclusionary theories like the one examined here have little place in building an African philosophical discourse that ensures that people with disabilities (and other identities say queer) are heard and as a result should be discarded. (I use the neutral term “people,” who I am arguing should be considered “persons.” I think that Kagame would find the phrase “persons with a disability” incomprehensible – for him, it would be an entity with a disability. Using the phrase “persons” here and elsewhere would be begging the question.)

Kagame’s Conceptualization of Personhood

Alexis Kagame’s theorization of personhood comes from a place where he wants to understand what muntu is. Kagame notes that “MU = Muntu = a man” indicating the singular is the root element of the “BA = Bantu = men” which is the plural of muntu (1989: 35). In attempting to articulate a conception of personhood, Kagame’s paper is split into four sections: The first section details the nature of muntu, i.e., what muntu is. Kagame contends that a man is muntu, by which I understand him to be referring to a human being. Kagame is not clear if muntu refers to a person or a human being; my reading of his theory is that muntu refers to a human being. Later he states the point in which man becomes a man “i.e., compete in his nature” (ibid.: 36). By this, he means to say the point in which muntu can be referred to as a person, i.e., the point where one would gain personhood. To ensure that these two distinctions are clear; lowercase m, muntu, refers to a human being which has the vital principle of animality and intelligence. Capital M, Muntu, refers to a person; this is a human being who “puts reason to good use” (ibid.: 37). (see Diagram A; making such a distinction makes his argument easier to follow.)

The second section regards death. Here Kagame argues that death extinguishes the two vital principles of Muntu (intelligence and shadow). In the third section, he explores what Muntu’s ultimate end is and lastly the relationship that Muntu has with her community. It should be noted that Kagame does not dub his theory as the shadow thesis; rather this term comes out of Kaphagawani’s (2004: 339) interpretation of Kagame’s paper. The fourth section of Kaame’s paper can be read as an attempt to underscore the communal link that Muntu has with the Bantu (this communal link later becomes important when discussing disabilities). As stated by Kagame, Muntu is “an integral part of a family group which is composed of its living and deceased members” (1989: 39). That is, Muntu does not exist as a lone individual; rather in all her existence, she is tied to her family. Considering the aims of this project, I focus on the first and third section of Kagame’s paper.

As stated earlier when Kagame explains what the elements of muntu are, I interpret this question as: “what is a human being.” According to Kagame muntu is “animated by a double vital principle: the shadow which he shares with the animal and the vital principle of intelligence” (later Kagame makes mention of the heart) (ibid.: 35). Shadow, which is the first principle, refers to the vital principle of animality; by this he means that muntu is partly animal and human. The second principle, according to Kagame anchors the difference between muntu and other animals; this is the existence of intelligence (which is immortal) and the heart.

The existence of the shadow is what muntu has in common with an animal; Kagame states that “two senses of sight and hearing are founded in the shadow principle of animality” (ibid.: 36). What I interpret this to mean is that both muntu and animal have the sense of hearing and sight which allows them to engage with their environment as physical bodies. The difference here is that muntu possesses two internal faculties: intelligence and the heart. Kagame states that these internal faculties are not possessed by animals. He writes:
“By his intelligence, man accomplishes the three operations impossible to the animal:
  1. (a)

    to reflect upon the data of his senses;

  2. (b)

    to compare the facts of knowledge he has acquired;

  3. (c)

    to invent something new by combining previously acquired knowledge.


The heart integrates all that the interior man is, it harmonises the operations and acquisitions of intelligence, by adding to them the acts which other cultures attribute to the will” (ibid.).

According to Kagame the heart refers to muntu’s unique personality, i.e., memory, thought, spirit, sensation, conscience, etc. (ibid.), which makes her different from the next muntu. Kagame further adds that the “heart integrates all that the interior man is and harmonises his total behaviour” (ibid.). Regarding the principle of intelligence, Kagame does not explain further what the three operations mean or why they are important.

After outlining what the nature of man is, Kagame articulates the point in which muntu becomes Muntu, and he notes that there are three divergent views. The first is that Muntu is complete as soon there is an umbilical cord between mother and child. The second is that Muntu is complete only once they have been named. The last view, which he seems to be in agreement with, is that Muntu is complete as soon as they put reason to good use. That is when one says x is a Muntu, according to Kagame this refers to a muntu who has the two vital shadows and puts reason to good use. That is, it would not be enough for one to reflect, compare, and invent. Rather, Kagame requires that Muntu must use her intelligence to good use (Kagame does not provide an explanation of what this may look like).

One can argue that Kagame’s category of reason and intelligence stems from Western Philosophy. The influence of Descartes’ dualism seems very visible. In the second meditation, the meditator reflects and meditates on the data of one’s senses. From there on the mediator concludes that she is a thinking thing; therefore she must exist. In the words of the meditator: “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes 1996: 18). Furthermore, one can regard Kagame’s view as being closer to Kant’s (see Kant (1785, 1781) and Korsgaard (1996)) ethics in which the source of moral value and agency lies in rationality. My interpretation of Kagame’s shadow thesis is that it is a conception of personhood that seeks to conceive of persons as having a mind (with the capacity of intelligence and putting reason to good use) and the body (that is the shadow).

Remaining within the scope of this chapter, I limit my focus on intelligence and the capacity to put reason to good use. I take “intelligence” to refer to one’s mental capabilities. The Online Oxford Dictionary defines intelligence as the “ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” ( Intelligence is a cognitive trait that would differentiate persons from nonpersons. My reading of Kagame’s theory is that the ability to “put reason to good use” would refer to an individual’s actions that do not bring harm to their immediate community; Kagame asserts that an individual is “an integral part of a family which is composed of its living and deceased members” (1989: 39). From this reading one could infer that any individual that does not put their reason to good use would either be denied personhood or simply be regarded as a bad person. I am inclined to support the latter view, that is, the inability to make good decisions would merely mean that one is a bad person – arguably this is different from an individual who say is born without intelligence – such an individual who is devoid of intelligence would be regarded as a mere entity.

It is clear how the argument that the shadow thesis is ableist would be formulated. One can note that the shadow thesis would not only deny people with severe cognitive disabilities (henceforth SCD) personhood, but they would also be denied the status of human being. (I limit my analysis to SCD like Down syndrome, autism, and traumatic brain injury (TBI); an argument can be made that it would also exclude persons who have physical impairments whether they are born with them or because of an illness. Focusing on physical disabilities would be based on an assertion.) I reject the given capacity of intelligence and reason sketched by Kagame and contend that it is ableist. I have highlighted the important features that are both necessary and sufficient for one to be considered a person. According to which intelligence is a necessary condition for personhood, a condition which I believe would exclude people with SCD, whom are believed to be without intelligence. Put this way SCD people will be excluded from the category of muntu and Muntu.

Using the social model of disability, a disability exists only when it is constructed socially and constructed in how it arises in a certain situation (Llewellyn and Hogan 2008: 320). That is, disabilities result in the way that a society is organized, rather than a person’s impairment. Harris C. James further states that while disabilities may be medical, they are also environmental. Importantly he adds that “the appreciation of the personhood of each individual recognises that” (2010: 57). For instance, suppose there is individual x in this community born with Down syndrome. Down syndrome defined as “a chromosomal disorder caused by an error in cell division that results in an extra 21st chromosome” which results [in] cognitive and physical disability (Crosta 2016). Typically, individuals with Down syndrome would not have the capacity to “reflect, compare, invent, or put reason to good use.” Since intelligence and reason are the two necessary conditions (intelligence and reason, heart + shadow would be necessary and sufficient) for one to be considered a Muntu – this would exclude SCD individuals from gaining personhood.

The question that could be posed for Kagame is: “what happens to an individual with down syndrome or any other cognitive disability? Are they still considered a person?” I assume that Kagame would admit that individual x would not be regarded as a person if they lack intelligence and reason. That they would be referred to as ibintu (meaning things in Kinyarwanda), these are beings who are without intelligence (Hountondji 1983: 40). It is for these reasons that one cannot accept the shadow thesis’s definition of personhood, for it would exclude people with SCD.

Ableism as “UnAfrican”?

One could argue, as inspired by Chris Bell’s (2006) critique, that disability studies have focused on only white people with disabilities. Bell argues that researchers of disability studies have failed to include scholars like W. E. B Du Bois (1996), Alice Walker (1983), and Ginu Kamani (1995) who have all written about disability, respectively. Bell’s views allude to a philosophical puzzle, that is, if (as constructionists think) our views about the world are mediated by the conceptual frameworks, we adopt (possibly those imposed on us by our social context), and then there might be something to the view that the concept of disability is “Western.” Such thoughts would have rightly led some scholars to think that disability studies are a study about white disabilities. I believe that such views nullify disabilities, like the argument that gender is a Western concept. Views like these fail to consider the lived experience of people with disabilities. Such thoughts and views are reductionist and should not be maintained.

It goes without saying that claims regarding the ableist nature of theories of personhood are not particular to African philosophy only. This sort of criticism has also been raised against Harry Frankfurt (1971), John Locke (1975), and Gerald Dworkin (1988) (philosophers that define personhood according to the “rational capacity of an individual”). Any theory of personhood that wants to make “rationality” a necessary condition for personhood faces the same problems. Be that as it may, the matters faced by Western philosophers/philosophies are outside the scope of this chapter. Primarily because I think that their conception of personhood is individualistic and not communitarian like the shadow thesis presents itself to be to a certain extent. (This may be construed as an overly homogenizing claim. Overly homogenizing because not all western conceptions of the person are obviously individualistic (I am thinking primarily of feminist accounts of the relational self here). However, at a token level, the different schools of thought have come to be seen this way.) The underlying critique here is toward philosophical realism; realists place rationality at the core of their theory which excludes people with disabilities, more specifically people with SCD.

When sketching the shadow thesis, I argued that SCD people would be denied both the status of muntu and Muntu (see Diagram A). Here I equated intelligence with rationality stating that this principle would exclude SCD people. The critique that the conceptions of persons are ableist stems from the idea that these theories have normalized able-bodies at the core of what counts as persons. Tobin Siebers defines this frame of thinking as “the ideology of ability” (2008: 8), which refers to the preference for “able-bodiedness.” He further states that the ideology of ability defines the “baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons” (ibid.).

In light of these considerations, the purpose of this section is to ascertain the merits of rejecting the studied conception of personhood. This section does not seek to provide an anthropological descriptive view of disability, but a plausible philosophical argument on how the studied conception of personhood others those who are without “intelligence or the ability to put reason to good use” and the implications thereof. My aims going forth are to expose the various ways in which the shadow thesis exemplifies itself as ableist and thereafter respond to the claim that ableism is “unAfrican.” Additionally, I indicate the various ways in which ableism has played itself out in African communities, seen in proverbs and folk laws. I contend that the justification for the ill-treatment of people with disabilities is premised on the notion that they are excluded from the category of personhood as identified earlier. I have a lot to say about the empirical implications of this exclusiveness. I reject any claims that may be made by reductionist scholars who argue that ableism is a Western concept. Just as personhood is a relational concept, constructs of gender, sexuality, and disability are premised on power. As Crenshaw (cited in Erevelles and Minear 2014: 356) explains:

To say that a category such as race and gender is socially constructed is not to say that the category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people…is thinking about the way in which power is clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.

Some Views of Disability in Africa

Chomba Wa Munyi states that communities have had various reasons for ill-treating people with disabilities; one of those reasons was that such individuals were an economic liability. He further contends that in other cultures “they were given respected status” (2012). For instance, in the Chagga community in East Africa, people with physical disabilities were regarded as the “pacifiers of evil spirits.” In Dahomey, in West Africa, now known as Benin, “constables were selected from those with obvious physical handicaps.” Furthermore, children with anomalies were regarded as being protected by a supernatural force (ibid.). In Ghana, SCD people were believed to be a reincarnation of a deity. In contrast, Munyi states that among the Ashanti of central Ghana, men who had any physical disability were not allowed to become chiefs. Moreover, those children born with more than five fingers, on one hand, were killed from birth. Research indicates that children with albinism have been killed in large parts of Southern Africa for their body parts, as there is the belief that they “have magical powers and bring good luck” (Surendran 2016).

Of interest to my investigation are the views that those born with any disability whether they are outcast or not are believed to either possess some form of evil or good fortune. It seems clear that such views are ableist as they are premised on the idea that any individual who is not born “normal” must have something special about them, and therefore they must be treated differently from an “abled” person. (But I wonder whether ableist would be the right label for someone who affirmed the disability. I am thinking if feminist movements that have reclaimed certain labels and stereotypes and have affirmed the value judgements attached to them, would we similarly call these movements sexist?) The problem is that such thoughts use disability as a metaphor for something else (this is often heard in African proverbs, like this one – which is negative: “Wahleka sichwala nawe uyawuchwala ngemuso, or, should you laugh at a disabled [individual], you will also be disabled in future” (Ndlovu 2016: 36)) . This assumes that there is something wrong with having a disability in any form.

The Songye proverb, “Ha mulemane utwela, kibi e kubuwa kingo (When the disabled [individual] enters, the door is completely shut”), meaning that an individual with a disability is believed to have some wisdom, and for this wisdom to be shared, the door should be shut (Devlieger 2010: 443). This kind of proverb, although it affirms disability in a positive manner, is problematic. The problem is that it does not recognize the individual as a person, rather treats them in a certain way because of their disability. Hebron L. Ndlovu argues that such proverbs indicate that people with disabilities in African communities are not defined by their “physical, mental, or psychological qualities,” instead by the interpersonal relationships that they have with other members of their communities (2016: 36).

I disagree with Ndlovu’s interpretation of the proverb; what this proverb indicates is the manner in which people with disabilities are reduced to their disability, one of which according to the proverb “one must not ridicule in case it may revert to you.” Fundamentally these views essentalize/pathologize people with disabilities. It removes the focus from the individual to their disability, to what their disability could potentially do/mean for the community – “disability becomes the essential aspect of their identities, at least in the eyes of observers, so that their personalities, abilities, interests and other personal qualities are subordinated by a condition that is perceived to be a dominant trait” (Dunn and Andrews 2015: 259). Fundamentally these proverbs deny people with disabilities personhood and view them as a monolithic group. Further to that, they do not recognize that disability is both visible (e.g., cognitive disabilities) and invisible (e.g., infertility). (The scope of this paper was limited to cognitive disabilities; however, this does not mean that Kagame’s shadow thesis would not regard infertility as a disability. In fact, he states that the ultimate “purpose of man is procreation” (1989: 39). Elsewhere, I argue that theories that make “procreation” a condition of person are equally as ableist (Manzini 2017).) So even if some communities may affirm the positive view of disability, such a view remains ableist.

In citing Lippman (1972: 89 cited in Munyi (2012), Munyi states that in most societies, people with disabilities are categorized as “deviants rather than inmates by the society” (2012). Munyi makes the disclaimer that such views in Africa were largely held because of ignorance, superstition, or fear. Yet, if we are serious in our philosophical work, we must ask what grounds such ignorance, superstition, or fear? It may be sufficient to accept that misconceptions regarding disabilities are universal and that they have been institutionalized over the years, and therefore there aren’t sufficient grounds to place the burden on African conceptions of persons to be progressive. Notably, even in Western thought, disability studies are a recent area of focus. As compelling as it is to accept such a claim, I don’t believe that just because the misconception regarding disability is universal, then certain disciplines are “saved” from engaging with disability.

I suspect that the objection that the shadow thesis is ableist could be put as follows: that communitarian theories of persons do not justify the ill-treatment of individuals living with disabilities. Said differently, the theory merely articulates that such individuals do not meet the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. Perhaps the communitarian may add that he is not concerned about how communities treat such individuals, as such a concern falls in the realm of communitarianism as a theory. The communitarian may further respond by saying that traces of such views can be traced back to the Greeks and the early Christian Doctrine, in which through imperialism and colonization, these views have found themselves in Africa. Therefore, ableist views are not African.

A Theory Is Just a Theory

A critic may argue that the abovementioned argument is merely my own insertion of Kagame’s thesis. That is, they would argue that a theory is just a theory. Insofar as the given conceptions of personhood do not prescribe how individuals who fail at personhood or attain personhood should be treated. These theories merely articulate a conception of personhood.

These scholars could bite the bullet and accept that their theories are exclusive to people with disabilities, yet their exclusion of such people makes no grounds for such a heavy projection. I assume that the critic may further say that I am conflating communitarianism as an ethic and communitarian conceptions of persons. Where the former prescribes how persons and nonpersons should be treated in a particular communal context and the latter just merely gives an account of personhood. And so, his final remarks would be that my critiques are directed in the wrong place, that this is a fight that I should be having with the communitarian theorist.

But Theories Are Not Just Theories

I think that there are problems with the argument presented by the communitarian that articulates the idea that his theory does not give grounds for societies to discriminate against people with disabilities. One will recall that this paper approached disability through the lens of the social model of disability, which views disability as “the consequence of social prejudice and a failure of social responsiveness to requirements of variant abilities and bodily demands” (Kittay 2005: 98).

Such social prejudice is arguably informed by the notion of who counts as a person and who does not. If a concept/theory of persons in its theorization privileges the existence of certain capabilities over others, it assumes that those with the privileged capacities are more important. In a recent paper (Manzini 2018), I articulate the difference between communitarianism as a theory and communitarian conceptions of persons, one closer reflection I think that there is no difference between the two. Instead, the latter can be regarded as a framework that enables the “realisation of the potentials, goals and hopes of the individual members” (Gyekye 1992: 101) of such communities. This view point is echoed by Gyekye who articulates that “[t]he type of social structure or arrangement evolved by a particular society seems to reflect—and be influenced by—the public conception of personhood held in a society” (ibid.). And so, the communitarian ought to be concerned about those whom it excludes from its theory of personhood. Failing to do so would be an ethically irresponsible act that does not see the danger it places on the individual’s lives that are removed from the category of persons.

The critic may argue that this argument is unconvincing, insofar as children are not considered as persons, yet societies do not treat them as inferior or ill-treat them. Ikuenobe states that this is because “children have unique moral status and are owed moral obligation and consideration because they display [the] potential of acquiring personhood” (2006: 61). While this criticism may seem true, such a view assumes that all children are treated equally, and I do not think that this is the case. I believe that the potential for personhood is only open for children who would be able to participate in the given rites of passage (i.e., cisgender and able-bodied children). Children who are intersex or have a disability would arguably not be treated in the same manner as cisgender and able-bodied children. Because of their ambiguous gender or disability, the potential for acquiring personhood is already closed off from this individual from an early age. Mojdeh Bayat’s recent findings on understanding disabilities in Cote d’Ivoire echo my sentiments and state that “children with disabilities are not treated with any noticeable degree of human dignity or respect” (2015: 8).

The point is that if a theory is discriminatory, then the practice will equally do the same. Kittay informs us that such views are philosophically problematic and posit a potential danger to vulnerable people (2009: 607). This is made evident in how people with disabilities have been ill-treated and are still ill-treated. To drive the point further, one can remind the reader of the “Life Esidimeni” incident (While media ( and the government has referred to this as a “tragedy,” I beg to differ. This incident is no tragedy instead it reveals to us how othering our societies are – it was only once lives were lost as a result of the relocations that the matter became public concern. One indeed wonders if lives were not lost if there would have been public outcry.), where 94% of people living with mental disabilities passed on after the Gauteng Health Department moved them from facilities that were trained to deal with the disabilities to non-governmental organizations that are not adequately trained to deal with the patients. It is for the abovementioned reasons that I maintain that theories cannot be read as just theories. If “persons are the sort of entities that are owed the duties of justice” as inferred by Menkiti (1984: 177), then one ought to be concerned about the practical implications of such a statement. Such a statement implies that it is only persons who can be treated justly; any individual that falls outside of the definition of persons is not owed the duties of justice. In his theorization of personhood, Menkiti makes it clear that the extension of moral language or duties of justice is only bound to persons. He argues that the extension of these duties to entities that are not persons would “undermine, sooner, or later, the clearness of our conception of what it means to be a person. The practical consequences are also something for us to worry about” (ibid.). And so, any theory that makes the distinction between persons and nonpersons, such a theory can be held responsible for any practical implications that results from it.

What’s Intersectionality Got To Do with Conceptions of Personhood?

In responding to the claim that ableism is unAfrican, I contend that the issue of disability within Africa should be understood through an intersectional lens. That is, disability in Africa and the theorization and problematizing of able-bodies cannot be done outside of understanding the effects of colonialism. The task of the colonial project was to deny Black people the status of personhood. Claims were made that Black people were primitive beings who had no capacity to think for themselves, i.e., without rationality. Josh Lukin states that the implication was that “blackness was a similar mental deficiency” (2014: 312); Mogobe B. Ramose further reminds us that categorizing Black people as without reason or rationality was also the project of Christianization, which was founded in scientific racism (2003: 3). Hence it was justifiable to use Africans as slaves.

That is, the categorization of who counts as abled and disabled has been used to assert power on certain individuals. Black people, Jews, and women have been historically denied the status of personhood, not because they do not have rationality. Instead, it was driven by power. The point being made here is that anyone can be regarded as disabled at any time, as Sieber puts it, disability “potentially includes anyone at any time” (2008: 71). Black people were regarded as disabled; the same could be said for Jews and Women.

Intersectional theory reminds us that “structures of oppression are related” (Carbado et al. 2013: 306), that is, we need to move away from a singular racialized interpretation of disability. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson reminds us that exclusionary theories and practices “are legitimated by systems of representation, by collective cultural stories that shape the material world, underwrite exclusionary attitudes, inform human relations, and mould our senses of who we are. Understanding how disability functions along with other systems of representation clarifies how all the systems intersect and mutually constitute one another.” (2002: 10). It is important for any African conception of persons to be inclusive.

I further take it that the conversations around ableism should not be read in isolation from gender and queer theory, primarily because these issues concern minority identities. They are all interlocking themes that affect one’s personhood and more generally fall into the debates had in moral philosophy. Most importantly, what can be taken away from this section is that if one has some form of disability, or is queer, intersexual, or a female, we note that the primary themes of inclusivity highlighted in this project become vivid. Put more simply, one who is living with a disability is an intersex and queer may be disqualified from considerations of personhood on any of the three accounts discussed.

My intensions for this section were to respond to the plausible objection that ableism is an unAfrican concept. I discounted these claims and indicated the various ways in which ableism has made itself evident in African communities. The rational here was not to view African communities as monolithic, rather to expose how ableist views permeate through proverbial talk and thinking that I think is influenced by the categories that are used to distinguish an animal from a muntu and Muntu. Are these views a true reflection of Africa? Answering this question is unnecessary; any view that shows itself to be discriminatory ought to be rejected. I then responded to the communitarians claim that a theory is just a theory. I think that this question deserves further philosophical consideration. It demands philosophers to interrogate what the role of theorizing is.

Conclusion: Toward an Inclusive Account of Personhood

The demand that I place on the communitarian to have an inclusive account of persons, the kind that would not discriminate against persons with disabilities and in particular SCD persons, highlights a philosophical tension that needs to be explored. (Throughout this chapter, I referred to such persons as individuals or people to avoid begging the question. Now that I have successfully indicated the exclusionary nature of the studied theory, such a shift is justified.) That is, it seems that any account of personhood should be able to distinguish between those who are morally responsible for their behavior from those who are not. Such an account of personhood should not marginalize people with disabilities arbitrarily. Yet, it seems that no account would be able to satisfactorily include SCD humans. If rationality which is used as the distinguishing marker for personhood (these moves are often drawn on in abortion debates as well, see Kuhse and Singer (1985), Nussbaum (2005), and McMahan (2003)), which refers to the good, proper or logical use of one’s mental capabilities. The challenge is why would one include SCD individuals to the category of persons if they cannot use their mental capacities? If such individuals say do not understand the ontological importance of the community, how does one hold these people morally accountable for their actions?

This philosophical tension only arises because certain theories and philosophers have placed the importance of personhood on descriptive capacities which would grant one personhood. However, I do not think that this needs to be the case. If communitarian theories of personhood were to give an account of personhood that has minimal requirements such as participation (This idea of participation should not be conflated with what the communitarian would call “duty” (see Gyekye 1992: 117–118); as such a conception of “duty” presupposes that one is a person first and only persons have duties (the same goes with talk regarding individual rights).), then this tension would be resolved. Such an account of personhood would be one that does not privilege able-bodies, and in the process, ensures inclusivity. Importantly, this would be the kind of theory that recognizes individual uniqueness. Participation is a requirement that does not demand certain capacities; equally one would be able to hold such individuals morally accountable for their actions. Roughly, a minimal requirement such as participation would entail that individuals are granted personhood insofar as they are seen participating in the community in whatever way they can.

At the moment what this inclusive account of personhood will look like is not fully sketched and requires more thought than what this chapter can do, this is something that I intend to explore in the future. Having said that, I do have a rough consideration of what it may look like, which seems fit as an ending to this chapter. My proposal is that this theory should be anchored in feminist care theory that recognizes that people are objects of care and as relational beings are also able to care for others in different ways. This is a view that leans toward the kind that is also articulated by Thaddeus Metz, which accords moral status to individuals insofar as they are “capable of being part of a communal relationship[s] of a certain kind” (2012: 393). However, Metz’s theory is not as hierarchical as it presents itself to be. My proposed account of personhood would shy away from statements such as “x is a more of a person than y,” rather such a conception would treat individuals as equals contingent on what they can naturally achieve or not. Importantly, it would force us to recognize that people are not a “madhouse” as Putuma (2017) reminds in her poem cited at the beginning of this chapter, rather that they we are all built differently, with different capabilities outside of intelligence that allow us to exist in different ways.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyPennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA

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